Sugar on Trial – villain or useful ingredient? Plus – two, low-sugar, summer fruit recipes.

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We love a food villain don’t we? Something that we can point a finger at and blame for our personal or national health-ills and expanding waistlines. Its easier to blame an individual, like fat, rather than a generic group, like ‘refined foods’, and so now, from this ‘group’, sugar has been singled out and put in the dock for sentencing and general humiliation.

Whilst I am as aware as anyone that sugar is overconsumed; sugar filled treats, teasingly tempt, from coffee shop counters, and the sheer ‘availability’ of sweet drinks and confectionary products makes them an everyday occurrence rather than, as they once were, a treat. Also the fact that sugar is ‘the-hidden-villain’ in many processed foods, adding flavour and texture and therefore sale-ability. Yet as a cook I question whether sugar is as all-consumingly bad as it is made out to be? Research is fickle, we saw the U-turn on fat as ‘number-one-killer’, and sugar replacements aren’t always the ‘goodies’ either. As a self-styled protector of ‘underdogs’, I find myself wanting to give sugar a more nuanced and balanced hearing and am not as set-against the ‘sweet-white-stuff’ as some.

Ironically, given what a bad press sugar is getting, its most natural form – raw cane juice- is currently one of the latest must have ‘health foods’. Calorie-wise the same as white sugar, evaporated or fresh cane juice, is packed with micro nutrients, B-vitamins, antioxidants, magnesium and potassium, the latter two, in particular, making it a delicious and consummately refreshing drink on a, sizzlingly, hot day. I have fond memories of watching with fascination as cane vendors in Mumbai cranked freshly picked sticks of sugar cane through hand-worked mangles extracting, from this seemingly dry product, refreshing glassfuls of pale-green juice, evaporated cane-juice is more of a pale hay colour. Definitely ‘nectar from heaven, when you are parched dry.

So, it seems, it is the transformation from juice to crystal that makes the villain, destroying, not all but most nutritional value and ‘health’ benefits, turning a raw product, unwittingly, from ‘health-giver’ to ‘health-destroyer’. These health concerns have prompted government to insist that the food industry reduce the sugar content of many of its products. In one sense this shouldn’t be too complicated or difficult to achieve; sugar is used as a good, and relatively cheap, bulking agent, removing some from recipes shouldn’t be an issue and would surely help us all.

However in-spite of their best efforts industry is having difficulty in finding alternatives that provide the same functional values (taste and texture as well as size) to products as sugar does. In fact the replacements themselves, like those that were used to replace fat, may in the long run throw up their own health issues, for instance there have been cancer scares over some sugar alternates (stevia, saccharine and aspartame) and gum-based bulking agents, and some artificial sweeteners have been linked to type 2 diabetes. Maybe sugar-free will even turnout to be the villain in years to come that gave us cancer and made us even ‘fatter’.  From a cooks point of view I  struggle to replace the sweet-white-stuff.

Five examples of sugars functional value is food and cooking:

  1. Stable foams: to make meringue you whisk egg whites to a foam; add sugar, which pushes the egg-proteins to the surface of the air bubbles, creating a the foam that is glossy mound and stable, one that won’t leak or separate, making it amenable to being piped, folded in to cold creamy mousses or desserts, or even left until later. 
  2. Texture: sugar adds texture to many baked goods. Sponges work best if well aerated which is what the creaming process is all about. Cream butter and sugar and the crystals cuts into the fat, aerating, and if done well, preventing that curdled look (when the eggs are added) that spoils the end result.
  3. Anticoagulant: to make custard sugar is creamed into egg or egg yolks, milk or cream is added and then the custard is gently warmed to thicken. The sugar acts as an anticoagulant, slowing the cooking of egg proteins preventing lumping and splitting.  
  4. Flavour enhancer: In many cuisines sugar is used as a condiment like salt and pepper acting as a flavour enhancer, balancing sour and bitter notes.
  5. Preservative: sugar reduces the water activity in foods and beverages, making water unavailable for use by bacteria and fungi, thereby reducing microbiological activity and mould formation.

From my own experiments I have come to the conclusion that from a cook’s point of view, sugar is by far-and-away the best sweetener for food preparation. My trials with alternative sweetening agents (and let’s be clear, they are all still sugars, semi-synthetic, or chemical, which I would prefer to avoid) have led me to the conclusion that they don’t all step-up-to-the-mark. Sugar, cane or beat, offers the palate a smooth, rounded mouthfeel that is uniquely satisfying. Alternative sweeteners even if ‘natural sugars’ often leave a ‘saccharine’, slightly pallid after-taste and a sense that ‘something’, is missing. Or they are so different in taste or structure that recipes need to be completely re-thought. ‘Let them eat cake’, was the famously proffered advice of Marie Antoinette to starving revolutionaries, advice that we seem to taken up with great alacrity (another irony given the ‘war-on-sugar’). Perhaps just to eat less of it is the answer rather than making a terror of sugar, or an error with substitutes, that might cost us dear in years to come.

If, like many of us, you are cutting back on your sugar consumption, then this week’s blog -recipes are for you. Two gloriously fruity low sugar recipes giving the fruit a chance to take centre stage. A fresh and refreshing raspberry packed fruit tart and an invigorating, pleasantly tart, low sugar blackcurrant jam.  Both are thickened with arrowroot, a non-grain starch, or Corn flour, which I explain how to use.

 

Fresh Raspberry Tart

 

fresh raspberry jam glazed tart

Fresh Raspberry Tart

Ingredients:

1x20cm precooked tart case

Or make you own:

150g spelt flour

80g butter

2 tablespoons water

 

Raspberry jelly

2 tablespoons corn-flour or arrow-root

2-3 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons water

250g raspberries

Topping

250g fresh raspberries to top

Glaze:

4 table-spoons redcurrant jelly

Juice half a lemon

Method

If you are making the pastry case put the flour into a large mixing bowl. Cut in the butter and rub together until the mix resembles bread crumbs. Add the water and mix with a fork until the pastry begins to clump. Bring the dough together into a neat ball with your hands. Cover with cling film and rest the pastry for ½ an hour before rolling and lining a 20cm lose based tart tin. Cover the case and chill it in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Heat the oven to 200c. line the pastry case with baking parchment and fill with baking beans. Bake for 10 minutes, remove the parchment and beans and cook for a further 10 to 12 minutes until the case is golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

Make the raspberry jelly:

Put the corn-flour or arrow-root, sugar and water into a medium sized saucepan and whisk well together. Add 125g (half) the raspberries to the pan and over a medium heat stirring as the berries pulp. The jell will begin to set as the mixture becomes hot, continue stirring until you have a very thick, dark pink gluey paste that heaves like a mud geyser rather than boils. Continue cooking, stirring well for 1-2 minutes to cook the corn-flour. If you are using arrowroot – remove it from the heat as soon as it is very thick and on the point of boiling.

Put the remaining 125g raspberries into a mixing bowl. Spoon over the cooked paste and blend together with a wooden spoon. Pour the raspberry gel into the cooked pastry case.

Stud with the topping raspberries and set the tart in the fridge for 2-3 hours.

low sugar raspbery jam

fresh low sugar jam for base of tart

To make the glaze put the redcurrant jelly and lemon juice into a small pan and blend well over a medium heat. Remove at the point of boiling, cool slightly and then brush the glaze over the top of the tart. serve cold with cream.

If you are serving the tart for an occasion you could melt 100g dark or white chocolate and brush the cooked pastry case base with it before you make the raspberry gel. The glaze adds sheen and additional taste adding a ‘professional’ touch. You could finish with a few rosettes of piped cream and grated dark or white chocolate.

Ingredients Watch:  

Arrow Root  and Cornflour

Arrowroot – a non-grain starch that acts a thickening and gelling agent. Extracted from the root of a tropical plant known as Maranta arundinacea. The starch powder is extracted by drying at high heat rather than by the chemical means used for other starches.

It is a white powder that looks very similar to corn flour and can be used in the same way.

Its main advantage is that it becomes translucent once cooked so it is great for making fruit glazes for tarts and pies.

Like cornflour it needs ‘slacking’ before adding to liquid. In simple terms this means mixing the flour with cold water to a slurry or lose paste.

One important point is that you need to take any arrow root mixture from the heat as soon as it has thickened and is just on the point of boiling. Over heat and it will thin. sauces intended to be served hot should be served as soon as they are ready.

 to make a thick paste the ratio is 1 teaspoon to 100ml of liquid. A glaze which once cool will drop off the spoon and is spreadable use ½ teaspoon to 100ml liquid.

Cornflour – it can be interchanged measure for measure with Arrowroot. Just make sure to cook for a minute or so extra to cook the starch.

 

Low sugar Blackcurrant jam

jar of blackcurrant jam and porridge bread with peaches

Low Sugar Blackcurrant Jam – set with Arrow-root

A fruit packed low sugar jam that will liven up you breakfast. Dollop on wholegrain porridge-bread filled with seeds and nuts ,and spread with butter or cream cheese (do I fess up that usually it’s both!).

Facts: in most jams sugar content is 50% of the ingredients – so there is about 15g of sugar in one tablespoons of jam. In this low sugar jam there is just 2.8g per of sugar per tablespoon. Disadvantage it doesn’t keep more than two weeks – advantage – you can make a different variety every couple of weeks!

Ingredients:

makes 250ml pot.

250g fresh or frozen blackcurrants

85g caster sugar

1 tablespoon water

3 heaped teaspoons arrowroot powder

Method

Put the blackcurrants, sugar and water into a pan and over a moderate heat bring to the boil. Cook for five minutes until well pulped. Cool slightly and then purée.

Mix the arrowroot with 1 tablespoon additional water to a paste. Pour into the puree and mix well. Return the pan to the heat and over a moderate heat stir until the jam thickens and boils. Once boiled remove from the heat and pour into a sterile jar. Seal, cool and once cold refrigerate.

The jam will keep, for at least ten days, in the fridge.

Use on toast, scones, to sandwich cakes or as the base in a summer fruits pie.

The same quantities can be used for most soft fruits – simply amend the amount of sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit used.

Links to vibrantly healthy summer recipes you might enjoy:

A Tuscan Superfood Salad

Beetroot Curry served with Coconut Lime Chutney

Tomato and Prosciutto Tart

Chicory, orange and watercress salad with a toasted walnut pesto

Tarragon chicken mayonnaise with grapes

Cracked Wheat Gazpacho Salad

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